Until a couple weeks ago, you probably didn’t think much about Mali, the large, former French colony that spans North and West Africa.
I know I didn’t.
But then we started hearing about French troops invading northern Mali, and militants kidnapping foreign workers in Algeria and that this all somehow connected to the fall of Gaddafi in Libya.
So, what’s going on in North Africa, and why does it matter to us way over here in Seattle?
Well, it all started with a long running rebellion by an nomadic ethnic group called the Tuareg (not to be confused with popular Volkswagen hatchback named in their honor) who want to break off the northern half of the country into an independent nation called Azawad. Tuareg ambitions for independence go way back to 1916, but at the beginning of last year, things got serious.
Empowered by an influx of weapons from the civil war in Libya, and allegedly joined by a bunch of interconnected Islamist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) the Tuareg rebels overtook several cities in Northern Mali including Timbuktu.
Further south in Mali’s capitol Bamako, military officers staged a coup against President Amadou Toumani Touré, citing mishandling of the insurgency as justification. (Indeed WikiLeaks reports that suggest that the former president may have actually been in cahoots with AQIM).
Dioncounda Traoré, the interim president they installed, promised to wage a ‘total war’ against the rebels.
It didn’t go very well.
“[The rebels] are well-armed, with pick-up trucks with machine guns, the Malian army was almost useless,” explains Dan Chirot, UW International Studies professor, who spent time in Niger with the peace corps in 1960s, and has done consulting work in west Africa throughout the 2000s.
“They would’ve gone all the way to Bamako and taken it over, it would’ve started a nasty civil war. There was a danger if they take over Bamako, they’d take over the country,”
Running out of options, Traoré asked for help from France, whose troops arrived a couple weeks ago, on January 10th
Aligned with weak Malian forces, French troops recaptured two central Northern Mali cities early this week with support of Malian civilians.
“There is a tremendous outcry of support for France and euphoria that the intervention has finally been kicked off. It’s very counterintuitive that the Malians would be thrilled to see, you know, 2,500 French troops arriving on their soil, but, you know, I can attest that’s very much the case right now,” Hannah Armstrong, Bamako-based research fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs told Democracy Now! last week.
Some cite France’s economic interests in the region, specifically uraniam in Niger, as being its main incentive for their intervention.
AFP reports that the United States is also now involved too, airlifting French Troops and equipment into Mali. Several other countries including Italy, Britain, and Canada are also providing support planes and helicopters.
Adding to the chaos and confusion, a hostage crisis in Algeria, (another former French colony) resulted in a four-day siege at a gas plant near the Libyan border that ended last Saturday with 38 confirmed casualties including 37 foreigners from eight different countries. According to BBC News, 5 foreigners are still missing and 32 militants are believed to be dead.
Whereas in the past, governments have simply paid ransoms to kidnappers, this time it was different.
“The Algerian government decided they were not going to negotiate. They just went in and a lot of people died,” says Chirot “And I think they were right.”
One-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmoktar (aka Mr. Marlboro) claimed responsibility for the attack. In a video posted to Sahara Media he claims he set up an AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb) splinter group ”to defend our lands and honor against the crusades of France,” demanding “the attacks on Mali’s Muslims end.”
Other sources, like Algeria’s Prime Minister, say the attack on the gas plant was far too sophisticated to be planned in the six days between the arrival of French troops in Mali and the attack itself.
Chirot agrees the connection is tenuous, and sees Belmoktar as an opportunist.
“Yes, he’s a Muslim extremist. He’s also a bandit, who has made millions of dollars from kidnapping,” he said.
Belmokhtar, a veteran of the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s, does have longstanding connections with al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIIM), but has since “distanced himself,” according to Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Things got even more interesting yesterday during Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the Senate about the attack on the US consulate in Libya when Republican Jim Risch suggested that some of the very same people who attacked the consulate were also involved in the Algeria attack.
Clinton responded that she couldn’t confirm it but, said the info came from the Algerian government “related to their questioning of certain of the terrorists that they took alive.”
Regardless of whether the exact same people perpetrated the two attacks, Clinton confirmed a trend of instability in North Africa.
“Benghazi didn’t happen in a vacuum,” she said. “The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region. And instability in Mali has created and expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we saw just last week in Algeria”
As you might expect, the long year of fighting along ethnic lines in Mali has also brought on a stark humanitarian crisis.
“According to recent UN reports, an additional 6,602 refugees fled to neighboring countries and 3,599 more were internally displaced in Mali over the last couple of weeks,” said Scott Paul, Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor at Oxfam.
Put simply, the situation is a mess. And as North Africa begins to look like the newest hot-spot for Islamist violence, the US is sure to be involved.
According to Chirot, probably for the long-haul:
“It’s a combination of several different things coming together, deep-seated things that are not going to be fixed quickly,” he says. “You could even relate it to America’s problems in Afghanistan…more than 11 years and we haven’t found a solution.